A Q&A with Lisa McInerney and her editor Mark Richards
‘All that was left was to have a leisurely pint with Mark once the business graft was done. We had a very nice lunch too; I appreciate being fed. Start as you mean to go on’
Mark Richards on Lisa McInerney: She’s a great combination of a lot of fun and also very dedicated. And with her work she both knows what she wants and is also open to suggestion. Writers can sometimes be either too closed or too suggestible. Oddly, that’s just as big a danger for an editor
Lisa McInernery on Mark Richards: So far we’ve – excuse the pun – always been on the same page, and we listen to whatever suggestions or issues the other raises. He lets me get on with it, which is important because I feel that he’s confident I’ll turn in good work that we can then make much better together
Lisa, what made you want to work with Mark?
My agent, Ivan Mulcahy, was in the process of finding a home for Heresies and I felt Mark just got it. His enthusiasm was infectious – and this at a point where I was exhausted from writing the novel. I knew immediately that he understood the novel and he understood the kind of writer I was, and I knew I could work well with him. And John Murray, of course, has an incredible history, irresistible even.
Can you describe the phone call/meeting when the offer was made/accepted?
Ivan looked after the bulk of it, so all that was left was for me to have a leisurely pint with Mark once the business graft was done. We had a very nice lunch too; I appreciate being fed. Start as you mean to go on and all that.
How long was The Glorious Heresies in the making before you sent it off?
I wrote the first draft in a reckless rush, about four months from start to finish, with a couple of weeks then spent incorporating some of my readers’ and agent’s suggestions before we started submitting it. But that said, a lot of its characters had been in my head for years at that point so their being so familiar helped a lot in terms of how quickly I could shape the plot.
From a drug-dealing romantic to an accidental murderer, there’s a motley ensemble cast in your book. They’re all in a burning building and you can only save one …
Well, that’s easy: Ryan, the drug-dealing romantic, because he carries book two, and so it wouldn’t be practical for him to die on me just yet. And also, I suppose, because he’s the youngest and therefore theoretically has the best chance of turning out OK. It certainly wouldn’t be Maureen, because it’s likely she’d have started the fire in the first place.
Shame and salvation are major themes of your novel. Did it help being Irish?
It sure did! I think it’s a particularly Irish novel, in the sense that its characters have a generous dose of religious or spiritual irreverence alongside those notions of sin and penitence and redemption. There’s a kind of artificial humility to us as a, dare I say, post-Catholic population. Shame, but only skin-deep. Salvation is a process we enjoy, but a word that makes us roll our eyes. Yet as a nation we bear very real scars. I feel that this story could only ever have been an Irish story.
Who is your first reader?
My husband. He’s the best motivation I have, because writers write to be read, and so if he’s waiting on a new chapter or a new story or even a brand new concept I feel obliged – in the best possible way – to provide.
What’s the most discouraging feedback you’ve ever been given?
Nothing is quite as discouraging as faint praise, I think. It’s like someone saying “I don’t care enough to even engage with what I don’t like about this, so let’s just say it’s grand”. Criticism is never discouraging: if it’s fair, you take it on board, and if it’s petty, you get annoyed and declare the critic a nemesis, which is very motivating. I’ve watched far too much ’90s cartoons to doubt the motivating power of a good nemesis.
If you could be any famous author, who would it be and why?
Honestly, I spend enough time being different imaginary people to harbour dreams of being a different real person. But if I had to pick I’d say Elena Ferrante, for what I hope are obvious reasons.
Do you discuss your ideas with Mark in advance?
No, which I’ve just realised may make him anxious. But I like to let the story and the characters develop as I write, and I rarely have any idea of exactly where I’m going, so my being too accessible would only wreck his head in the long run – I’d be constantly contradicting myself. I’m doing this for your own good, Mark.
Do the two of you ever argue?
No. Not until he reads these answers, at least. So far we’ve – excuse the pun – always been on the same page, and we listen to whatever suggestions or issues the other raises. Though he is very polite, so maybe he’s been arguing with me for months and I’ve never noticed.
Did you resist any of Mark’s suggestions that you now feel differently about?
I don’t recall resisting any of his suggestions. Luckily, so far he’s been right on everything.
What’s the best thing about working with Mark?
He lets me get on with it, which is important because I feel that he’s confident I’ll turn in good work that we can then make much better together. Mutual trust, I think.
You’ve recently been longlisted for the Baileys Prize for Fiction. What would you do with the money if you won?
I’d send Mark a crate of Tanora.
Every author’s favourite question … What are you working on now?
Novel 2! Which I’m still reluctant to name because I’m not 100 per cent on that yet. It’s coming along nicely (she says, prematurely) and Mark’s already read it without bursting into flames, so that’s good. It’s a sort-of-sequel to Heresies in that it works with some of the same characters and it’s set in Cork, but I’d like to think it could stand on its own too, that the reader won’t need Heresies as a primer in order to get something out of it.
Lisa McInerney’s debut novel The Glorious Heresies (John Murray) was named as a book of the year by The Irish Times, Sunday Independent and Sunday Business Post and has been longlisted for the 2016 Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction. Her short stories have featured in The Stinging Fly, on BBC Radio 4 and in the anthologies The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and Town and Country, edited by Kevin Barry
Mark, what attracted you to Lisa’s work?
The first thing was its energy – the novel starts with a bang, and doesn’t let up. It’s also very funny, a quality that’s both underrated and sadly missing in far too much fiction. And she’s got the most brilliant way with characters; all of them leap off the page and stay in your head (and heart).
How do you prefer to see work (both aspiring authors and those you represent)?
I don’t mind at all. It’s really what’s helpful to the author, but I’m keen to be as involved as early as they want me to be. Lisa’s second novel I didn’t read until it was a full draft, but I’ve just read the first half of the new novel from another of my authors, and am expecting the first third from another towards the end of this month. In terms of aspiring authors, I’m happy to buy novels on partial manuscripts – I’ve bought one on 60 pages, for instance – though not all editors are.
What was the biggest selling point of The Glorious Heresies when pitching to colleagues?
Spoilt for choice. But the characters, the humour and the big, ballsy plot were great places to start.
What was the most challenging part of editing the book?
The fact that there are about half a dozen main characters and a handful of interlocking storylines. It’s like having lots of plates in the air at the same time. To be honest, though, Lisa had done pretty much everything, it was just a case of smoothing a handful of places out.
What’s the best thing about working with Lisa?
She’s a great combination of a lot of fun and also very dedicated. And with her work she both knows what she wants and is also open to suggestion. Writers can sometimes be either too closed or too suggestible. Oddly, that’s just as big a danger for an editor.
Is Lisa an “Irish writer” and if so, how?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question. I think in some ways the novel could only have come from Ireland – in particular in the relation between the characters and the church, broadly conceived – but whether on a more sentence-level there’s something particularly Irish about her I’m not sure. But whether it’s from being Irish or not, she has a wonderful and intoxicating freedom with words.
Whose writing does her work remind you of?
I suppose, on the freedom with words and big characters, there are obvious comparisons with Patrick McCabe and Irvine Welsh. But if I’m honest the work I’ve most frequently compared her novel to is Shameless. Though set in Cork and with more violence, it’s just as funny and just as true.
What part of the editing process do you like best?
When you feel there’s something that isn’t working, but then it does, which might sound so generalised an answer as to be meaningless, but the truth is it can happen at any stage of the process. In a big, structural way, or in a more localised way, when you just need to shade slightly differently.
What books have you passed on that you wish you hadn’t?
I don’t like very many books – in fact, very few – so I’m rarely in a position that I pass on something and wish I hadn’t. Even if it goes on to great success, I feel that I wouldn’t have been the right editor for it. But there are a few books I wish I’d fought harder for, including most recently This is London by Ben Judah, a latter-day George Orwell who has spent time with a cross-section of immigrant communities in London, from rich Arabs to Polish builders to begging Romas. It obviously sounds like it’s a London book but really it’s a frighteningly clear-eyed, totally engrossing book about our world, and I think everyone should read it.
What’s the worst thing about working with authors?
Ha! Are you trying to sow discord?
What’s the biggest misconception around your job?
That we spend all day reading, when we’re not having long boozy lunches, though I did have a long boozy lunch with Lisa, so there is a time and a place.
What are the titles to watch out for in 2016, both from John Murray and in general?
In August we’re publishing a big, multi-layered debut novel by Michael Hughes – who’s originally from Keady in Northern Ireland – called The Countenance Divine, that takes in Y2K, Jack the Ripper, William Blake and John Milton, and that Toby Litt has already called a “brilliant cross between David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel”. And in July on JM Originals we’re publishing Marlow’s Landing by Toby Vieira, half-literary diamond thriller and half-hallucinogenic rewrite of Heart of Darkness.
More generally there’s a novel called The Girls by Emma Cline that is extraordinary. Ostensibly a retelling of the Manson murders, it’s really about teenage female sexuality, and is both brilliant and horrifying. And there’s a great, enveloping book called The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, the second novel from an up-and-coming literary star.
Mark Richards started in publishing at Fourth Estate, where he worked for seven years before joining John Murray as editorial director in 2013. His writers include Andrew Michael Hurley, Edith Pearlman, Danielle McLaughlin and Paula McGrath.
The Glorious Heresis is published in paperback by John Murray, at £8.99. As always, Hodges Figgis is offering a 10 per cent discount to Irish Times Book Club readers. Come and listen to Lisa McInerney read from her novel and discuss it with Martin Doyle, Assistant Literary Editor of The Irish Times, at the Irish Writers’ Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, March 24th, at 7.30pm. Tickets €5/€3 in advancde, or €7 on the door, to include a glass of wine.